Planet Cricket

Tim Wig­more as­sesses the progress of the na­tions all vy­ing for a place in the next global tournament in Eng­land

The Cricket Paper - - NEWS -

Tim Wig­more on the bat­tle for 2019 World Cup places

The wel­come re­turns of Bren­dan Tay­lor and Kyle Jarvis leave Zim­babwe cricket stronger than for many years. A side hol­lowed out by a com­bi­na­tion of the ap­palling po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in the coun­try, ter­ri­ble mis­man­age­ment from their own board and the lack of eq­uity – of fix­tures or rev­enue – in the struc­ture of the in­ter­na­tional game can now glimpse a more op­ti­mistic fu­ture. In July, Zim­babwe top­pled Sri Lanka 3-2 away in a land­mark one-day in­ter­na­tional se­ries vic­tory.

Now, their am­bi­tions are to qual­ify for the 2019 World Cup in Eng­land. Du­bi­ously, the qual­i­fi­ca­tion tournament is poised to be held in Zim­babwe in March – for clas­sic rea­sons of pol­i­tick­ing (giv­ing Zim­babwe the great­est chance of qual­i­fi­ca­tion) over sport­ing merit (du­pli­cat­ing the con­di­tions that will ac­tu­ally be used in the World Cup it­self).

Yet the qual­i­fiers still loom as a com­pelling tournament. In a world of un­end­ing, te­dious five-match bi­lat­eral ODI se­ries, the World Cup qual­i­fiers will be a wel­come an­ti­dote: a cut­throat tournament brim­ming with con­text, in which ev­ery match mat­ters.

It is ex­pected – al­though, lu­di­crously, the for­mat has not yet been con­firmed – that the field of ten will be di­vided up into two groups of five, with the top three from each group then ad­vanc­ing to the Su­per Six stage. Then, the top two teams will reach the World Cup, and play in the fi­nal of the qual­i­fiers.

What we do know is a cut-throat and bru­tal tournament awaits. To be sure of reach­ing the World Cup, sides will have to win six of their seven games across the group stages and the Su­per Sixes.

No rest­ing of play­ers here; ev­ery match will be im­bued with jeop­ardy, con­tain­ing huge con­se­quences for vic­tory and de­feat - not merely the ul­ti­mate prize of World Cup qual­i­fi­ca­tion, but also huge dis­par­i­ties in fund­ing, which could de­ter­mine whether some As­so­ci­ate coun­tries can con­tinue to af­ford pro­fes­sional con­tracts, and ODI sta­tus for the next four years.

Who looks best-placed to make it? The West Indies, with re­turnees Chris Gayle and Mar­lon Sa­muels, are clearly favourites.

Should Sunil Narine re­turn to the ODI team too, as ex­pected, it will give the West Indies a price­less edge on Zim­bab­wean pitches that of­fer turn - and, as pitches are likely to be reused sev­eral times, will prob­a­bly take more turn later on in the qual­i­fiers.

Yet even the West Indies will not be ac­cus­tomed to play­ing so many high stakes matches in a row, in which de­feat is un­think­able – very dif­fer­ent to the World Twenty20 knock­out stages when, for all the glory of vic­tory, de­feat will not cause last­ing harm to a na­tion’s cricket.

Zim­babwe, with the re­turnees of their own and the as­tute coach­ing of Heath Streak, should prob­a­bly now be con­sid­ered nar­row sec­ond favourites, es­pe­cially with the boon of home con­di­tions.

Not that Afghanistan will have any qualms about play­ing in Zim­babwe. They have played three ODI se­ries there, draw­ing 2-2 (from 2-0 down) in 2014, win­ning 3-2 in 2015 and then do­ing so again ear­lier this year. Rashid Khan en­joyed an ex­tra­or­di­nary se­ries then, and fol­lowed it up with 7-19 in an ODI vic­tory in the West Indies in June.

He is sup­ported by a won­der­fully varies bowl­ing at­tack, and bat­ting that, if still com­par­a­tively weaker, is gain­ing ma­tu­rity and depth.

And what lies be­yond? Three other na­tions have re­al­is­tic chances of qual­i­fi­ca­tion, the Euro­pean trio of Ire­land, Scot­land and the Nether­lands. Ire­land’s team has de­clined just as they have re­ceived Full Mem­ber sta­tus, but theirs re­mains a bat­tle­hard­ened team ac­cus­tomed to dom­i­nat­ing As­so­ci­ates in ODIs.

A top or­der bat­ting line-up of Ed Joyce, Paul Stir­ling, Wil­liam Porter­field and Andy Bal­birnie would ex­pect to score co­pi­ous runs, with Tim Murtagh and Boyd Rankin a fine new ball pair, pro­vid­ing both are fit.

Scot­land served no­tice of their rise by beat­ing Sri Lanka and Zim­babwe in 50-over matches this sum­mer. They have a well-bal­anced team, with Sus­sex’s Stu Whit­ting­ham and Hamp­shire’s Brad Wheal pro­vid­ing cut­ting edge, but are per­haps overde­pen­dent on Kyle Coet­zer’s runs; then again, Coet­zer scored three cen­turies in their six one-day matches last sum­mer.

Most in­trigu­ing is the Nether­lands. Since tak­ing over as coach this year Ryan Camp­bell has helped se­cure them an in­creased vol­ume of fix­tures. They have a fine bowl­ing at­tack - Paul van Meek­eren and Tim van der Gugten as open­ing bowlers, and then a pair of left-arm spin­ners, Roloef van der Merwe and the legspin­ner Michael Rip­pon, to fol­low. The bat­ting is less re­li­able.

But Camp­bell hopes to be able to in­clude Tom Cooper, the South Aus­tralia bats­man, and po­ten­tially even Ryan ten Doeschate too. If those play­ers are in­deed re­called, the Dutch would have a team ca­pa­ble of reach­ing the World Cup.

For all these caveats, here is a lon­grange es­ti­mate of each team’s chances: West Indies, 75%; Zim­babwe 45%; Afghanistan 40%; Ire­land, Scot­land and the Nether­lands, 12% each; the other four teams 1% each.

It all em­pha­sises the in­san­ity of the World Cup con­tract­ing to ten na­tions - at ex­actly the mo­ment when world cricket has more depth than ever be­fore.

Foot­ball fans may be­rate how their World Cup is be­ing un­der­mined by ex­pan­sion to 48 teams — but too many sides in a World Cup is in­fin­itely prefer­able to the ex­clu­sion­ary and elit­ist ap­proach favoured by the crick­et­ing pow­ers at be.

PIC­TURE: Getty Im­ages

Bat­tle: Bren­dan Tay­lor of Zim­babwe bats dur­ing the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup match be­tween In­dia and Zim­babwe

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